Sunday, December 2, 2012
An Actor’s Perspective on Getting a Good Agent (Or a Better One) in Hollywood
Many casting directors, and even agents tell us we need to be authentic and be ourselves. Well, I agree with that, but we have to get IN the door first, then we can be ourselves. That's the focus of my post. Even as a character type out in LA, I noticed that there were 1000’s of SAG actors similar to me. I had pretty good headshots that just looked like me, that worked reasonably well, but I wasn’t getting in as many doors as I honestly felt I should be. I had to find a way to stand out from the crowd a little bit. I knew I had to try and re-brand myself. That is why I ended up using character specific headshots n 1989.
As a SAG member you can have representation for commercials, and/or for theatrical. Generally speaking it is a lot easier to get signed with a good commercial agency, because they are almost always looking for fresh new faces. Theatrical on the other hand is a lot more difficult. You have to have some pretty serious credits, or a good referral. And even then, it’s hard to work up to the top of their list to get audition calls.
Many actors sign with “across the board” agencies, (commercial and theatrical) and for some of them it works, or it may feel necessary. I like to have 3 different teams working for me. A commercial agency, a theatrical agency, and the team of “me”. Just because I have an agent for each doesn’t mean I should sit there and wait for the phone to ring. I need to be self submitting to trade paper castings, online castings, bulk casting director mail outs every 6 months, and even blindly to shows I think I might be right for.
Let’s face it though, many people new to the business think they can self submit through all these online casting sites and start at the top without even having an agent. Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way. You might luck out and get a day player Scooby Snack, but if you are in NY or LA, you have to have good SAG agency representation or you are pretty much screwed over the long haul. I’m not saying you shouldn’t self submit, and do mail outs, I never stopped doing it, and I never will. Even if you live in other markets, and don’t have an agent yet, self submit all you can. Something to keep in mind though, is most casting directors do not cast actors outside their area. (Name actors excluded.) So if you are non-union and live in Kentucky, submitting to agents and casting directors in LA is probably a waste of your money, or maybe even a scam.
I managed to get quite a few nice roles on my own without an agent. But without SAG agency representation I never would have survived long enough to make them happen. The meat of auditions always came through agents, and it probably always will.
Agents get the breakdowns of roles from breakdown services, and they call the actors they think have the best shot at booking a role. It will probably always be that way. A few of them filter out on to casting sites, but not many.
So getting to LA was my priority one objective. Once I had enough decent credits, a demo reel, and headshots, I made the move out there. Something we lose sight of is that for every role, we are competing with the most highly trained, most experienced, and best actors in the word. After all, it is Hollywood, and that’s where they all go to earn a living.
Going there before you are ready is a huge mistake. There are way too many SAG actors that have only done one SAG role, and the majority of union actors earn less than $5000 a year. If you don’t have a demo reel yet, you are probably not ready. I had to find a way to increase the odds. In the theatrical world, character specific headshots are kind of frowned upon, but not so much in the commercial world. And that is where you can earn the real living for yourself. Getting that breakthrough film role can take years, if at all.
Booking a national commercial on the other hand can happen a lot faster. The average odds of a SAG actor in LA booking a national commercial is 1 in 83. That’s a lot of running around for free. My first year there, it was even worse than that. Something like 0 for 240. A few callbacks, but no bookings. It was very discouraging.
A good national spot pays a whole lot more than a guest spot on a sit-com. Sometimes just a look can get you hired, but don’t kid yourself, you still have to have some chops. Producers, casting directors, agents, and directors can spot experience and confidence. So yes, you do need some years of training and on the ground audition experience. After you get IN the door, you still have to deliver the goods. All the pros are going to be doing it. But nothing happens unless you get in the door first. My hope is that sharing my story will give you a few ideas, and help you a little. What worked for me, may not work for you. We’re all different. Especially me.
Flashback to 1987, I had been in LA for a year. Lots of auditions and callbacks, but no significant bookings. Finally, I lucked out, and worked with a guy who became a friendly acquaintance of mine named Stan Yale. He’s an actor who plays nothing at all but homeless guy characters, and that’s all he does. That’s his read and butter. Look him up on IMDb. (Most anyone who is considering hiring you probably will look you up on there also.)
Anyway, one time on the set in-between shots I asked him, are homeless guys the only kind of roles you do? He said to me yes that’s it. I went character specific because I needed to find a niche’ for myself in this business. I grew out my hair, wore grubby clothes and got headshots done of me as a hobo. I realized that not many actors wanted to play homeless guy roles like this because they think it’s bad for their image of who they wanted to be, or their ego got in the way. I don’t give a crap how people look at me, or if they laugh or feel sorry. I just want to work and make it in this town as a working actor.
That conversation really opened my eyes. I thought to myself, why don’t I do the same thing on a little larger scale? I got laughed at and made fun of all through high school...I can do that. I’ll be a homeless guy, a workman/mechanic with a ball cap on, a lab guy with glasses, a cowboy, and a dopey dad. Let them make fun, or laugh at me…at least now I’ll get paid for it.
As it ended up, it turned out to be a pretty good career move. More like it saved it. There were lots of character specific castings that came along, and if my headshot appeared I got called in for them. Now granted, there aren’t many bums in TV commercials...well...wait. Skip that.
Anyway, I got the wardrobe together for each, scheduled a new photo shoot and told the photographer I needed these 6 looks and negotiated a decent rate. (Up front) At that time we could use an 8 x 10 composite with 4 photos as well as headshots. I wanted to increase my odds, and the comp did just that. I could show 4 completely different characters on a single 8 x 10. Eventually I had a full size headshot done of each look. Yes it cost me a lot, but we as actors have a toolbox. Inside it are all the years of acting training, coaches, and years of shows, auditions, and experience we bring to the table. But on that top rack is our most important tool, our business cards, our headshots.
When I got to LA, I got the list of SAG franchised agents, and blindly submitted my headshot to almost all of them. (100’s) That was pretty stupid, and I wasted a lot of materials, and money. I did get signed with a larger commercial agency, but other than the audition experience I got, I pretty much blew my first year.
So after that first disappointing year, I went agent shopping. There’s just too many to blindly submit to all of them, so I targeted the ones I felt were going to be right for me. With a few exceptions, most of them all get the same breakdowns for roles anyway. I purchased an agency book at Samuel French that they publish monthly. This way I knew who was too big, who was medium sized, who rep’s commercials only, how long they’ve been SAG franchised, what kind of clients they rep, and the contact names and addresses. Getting just a list of agents like I did is too vague, and it’s way too expensive to do mail outs to all of them. I selected 20 primary, 20 as backups, and put together agent packs.
A nicely typed professional looking cover letter needs to accompany it, or the odds that it’s going past the receptionist decrease by half. The letter shouldn’t be more than a paragraph or two at the most. These people are extremely busy and don’t have time to read about your life. Keep it short and sweet but with some personality. I used the same letter for each agency, but changed the agent name on each one, so they appeared individual. It only takes a little longer, and shows that you took the time rather than just a form letter. They don’t need to now you are doing 20. Remember to put your email on the cover letter.
Include a link to your demo reel if you have one. Address it to that agent, and sign it. I hand wrote their address on the front of the envelope, attention to, and my return address in my best handwriting. Rather than just mailing them out, I dropped each one off over the course of my travels in a week. It was a brief cover letter, in a manila envelope, attn: the rep., with no stamp, and that’s it. If it makes it to an agent, they will see it’s an actor pounding the street, someone who’s willing to take some initiative. My plan was a follow up letter, or a call 10 days later.
Even in the 80’s most actors were too lazy to drop them off personally. I didn’t insist on speaking to anyone, just greeted the receptionist politely, handed it to them, I would mention I was seeking representation, thank them sincerely, and leave. 15 seconds at most. They are way to busy to deal with babbling actors or schmoozing. Kind of like I’m doing here. The thing many actors don’t think of, is that one day that person at the reception desk may become an agent or a casting director. If you are rude, they will remember you. If you are prompt and professional, chances are good your envelope might make it back to an agent. One of the best friendly acquaintances you can have IS the receptionist. If you sign with that agency, they know all the inner workings of that office, and everything going on inside it. They can be your best friend. This industry is a lot about networking. Most everybody knows everybody else, and word gets around.
If you are brief about it, most medium sized agencies don’t mind if an actor drops off their headshot seeking representation. These days many actors are so lazy they just email their headshot thinking that’s going to work. Maybe it will, probably not. Going that short extra mile shows them that you are willing to put in a little work, and you are taking the time to do this because it matters to you more than it does than the actor who only emailed it.
So anyway, out of the 20 agency drop off’s, 4 of them called me in the next week. I used a hobo, and car mechanic headshot with my cover letter in each envelope. A few of them got past somebody’s desk, and got me 4 interviews. For each one, I showed up in a suit and tie and did my thing. Not too eagerly either. It was a nice contrast from my character headshots to seeing me cleaned up and professional looking.
At each interview I told them the truth, that I had 4 interviews, and I would make a decision in 24 hours. Most of them want that long, (or more) as well. I felt I would go with the best vibe I got from there. A few said we want to speak with the other agents and we will call you tomorrow. Okay, thank you. I look forward to hearing from you. Others wanted to sign me there on the spot. I asked for 24 hours to make a decision. I ended up going with the one that felt the best to me. I got the feeling they were going to target me for the right things, and not just splatter me all over town. That’s what the larger agency I first went with did. They pretty much ran me ragged, and over time I felt I wasn’t being sent out for the right things. I made that agency move about a year later. It was an expensive learning process.
Loyalty is a big thing with building a working relationship, so I felt it was important to give it that long. I got that new agent booklet, and went through the agent hunting process again. This time I went with a medium sized boutique agency. It was much smaller. It had an owner, receptionist, and 2 agents. I got called for fewer auditions, but I started booking commercials. Nice ones. I was hitting 1 in 25 now. They were targeting me much better. They knew what roles I was good for, and where I fit in the business. I ended up working a lot, and stayed with them for 12 years. They had faith in me, helped to groom my brand, and even when they went through some rough times, and other agencies approached me, I stayed loyal to them. After all, they had invested years in me, like I had with them. A good working business relationship is hard to come by. They worked even harder for me after that.
You just have to be careful about changing agencies. You don’t want to be known as an actor who’s an agent hopper, going from agency to agency every 4 months. Especially if they’ve invested lots of time and work into you, and then you jump ship to what you might think is a larger or better agency. Think about that real hard before you do anything rash. If it’s the commercial season, and you’re not getting a commercial audition or two a week, well yeah something’s probably wrong. Most of us have to have a crap job to get by, but acting is our passion and this is what we want to do. I lost many a day job because of a callback. I don’t regret it either. I booked some of those that I toiled over. You have to earn a living and pay the bills, but sometimes you have to make a hard choice.
If you give your agent some time, and things just don’t seem to be working out, maybe it is time to move to another one. It’s a good idea not to leave until you have another one locked down. Back to the agent booklet, and mail outs again. I think it was smart to be honest with both agencies when the time came, the old agent, and the new one. I want to minimize any hard feelings that might exist. And a good actor agent working relationship is built on honesty. Don’t ever badmouth an agency you were with, to anyone. Even to other actors. Bad words have a way of working their way around. I only know that because I was stupid enough to do it, and it came back to bite me.
I think it’s a good idea to let a new agent know I can do rush auditions, and that I keep changes and headshots in my car so I can do it. They know I’m prepared on a moment’s notice. I had many a rush call audition. That, getting callbacks, and being low maintenance moves you up the list when the breakdowns come in.
But back to one…it was that top shelf in my tool box that made all of this happen for me. Those character specific headshots. When calls came in for any of those 5 looks I got called. And as time went by, for lots of other things as well. Looking back, had I not done that, I wouldn’t have gotten that agent, or those auditions. I would have been just another character in Hollywood with headshots pasted all over his car.
Most of what I’ve written here is about the commercial world. Some of it applies to theatrical, but generally they don’t like character specific headshots. All I can say is it worked for me. Had I not done that, I would have only lasted a year like most other actors when they move to LA. So for what it’s worth, I hope some of this helps you to get an agent, or a better agent, or find a niche’ for yourself in the business. There are just way too may actors to be just another face in the crowd. This worked for me, I’m not saying it’s going to work for you. I’m just trying to help with some of my experiences and things I did to help me survive. Being authentic and just being yourself doesn’t do you much good if your dream gets crushed and you are broke.
I’m also not going to say that seasoned agents and casting directors can’t visualize us in other character roles, but sometimes, (just like in an audition) we have to show it to them. Many of the people involved in the hiring process do lack a bit of imagination. Those new headshots helped to get me past some of that. I have to get the audition before I can bring things to life, and I need an agent to get me consistent auditions.
Once I re-branded myself, agencies interest increased in me, and my auditions turned to bookings. When a cowboy role came along, I was called. A car mechanic? same thing. That bum headshot Stan suggested I do? It got me lots of auditions, and I booked a role on a Mel Brooks film. That headshot was worth the cost just for that. Without that headshot I never would have been submitted for it. Thank you Stan, you gave me the best career advice ever. I left all that “just another actor in the crowd” stuff behind.
Some of you might be thinking well it’s easy for you because you’re a character type. Well that’s true, but believe me I suffered getting there just like everyone else. The point is to try and find a place in the industry where you can stand out, be a little bit different, and get an agent. Then hopefully some auditions. We often loose sight of how many actors there are for every single role. And, how well trained most of them are.
During my first year in LA I really wanted to know my competition, and what I was up against so I interned free for a commercial casting director a couple of months. She kept me busy and kicked the crap out of me, but I learned a lot about how their day goes, and I got to sit in on a lot of casting sessions to watch the other actors audition for the same roles. I got to see how the other actors approached them. More importantly the mistakes they made, and the ones that did things right. The ones that did things different to stand out, rather than making the obvious choices. The ones who took risks. Going forward from that, I had a huge advantage from that little bit of inside baseball. Go to all the casting workshops you want, but you never get to see the real behind the scenes actor auditions. I think looking back, I learned more from that, than probably from anything else.
Unfortunately for newcomers to the biz, reality TV gives too may people the impression they don’t need to put in the years of work and training. They can start right at the top. They don’t need an agent, they can sing on key, and get instant fame just like on FaceBook with a popular cat photo. Sorry, you have to work hard at it like any other career choice. And fame? You’re lucky if you can get work. That was my goal, just to work, doing what I love doing, acting. Fame is a dumb goal, respectability is not.
But wait, get this…watching TV is part of your job! Always be looking at the constantly changing, and current trends in TV shows, and commercials. Try and visualize where you can fit in, and try and work your way into some of those places.
When I was young, I remembered seeing the Big Red gum TV commercials all the time. There was always the couple kissing, and then you would barely notice this generic workman guy that would walk by pushing something, or just standing there, rolling his eyes because they were wasting so much of his time, or he was jealous. Actually, it was both. I became that Big Red guy for 5 years. The point is, after seeing his type of character so often in commercials I created a similar look for myself, and it worked. I became that guy. It was just a trend that was going on at the time. It’s not about the person, it’s about the product, so they don’t necessarily want you to stand out. Just be the necessary body that moves the object. It hurt my ego all the way to the bank. In commercials if you are hired as a principal, it all pays the same. Study the products and their current ad campaigns. Part of the reason I got that one was I knew the workman guy was waiting for the kissing couple. They didn’t say any of that even at the callback.
But that was just one instance, I had other commercials that ran only 1 week, some only ran 1 time, and some not at all. That’s pretty heartbreaking after all we go through to book one. But it happens, and it’s out of our control. I learned to never get excited until I saw a spot air for a few weeks. Talking about one you just booked on social media before it airs is not a good idea. It pisses of the ad agencies, and a few others. Plus I think you can jinx it.
I wanted to be in films and in TV shows like everyone else when I got to LA. As it ended up I started booking commercials after that first year. I kept booking them, and I became typecast as a commercial actor. It wasn’t my plan, I really didn’t want that. It just happened and I made the choice to roll with it. I figured it might lead to film and TV. I was wrong, but it worked out okay. Theatrical agents didn’t want any part of me as a result, I was too well known. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get with a good theatrical agent. And believe me, I tried, year after year.
I ended up booking more TV and film roles on my own. I couldn’t buy theatrical auditions, (Yeah, I also got ripped off on a few paid CD showcases.) so I blindly sent headshots to a lot of TV shows I thought I might be good for about once a year. AFTRA had a show sheet at the time we could pick up at the office. One of those shows on the list of about 50 was the Tonight Show right when Jay Leno took over. And out of the blue, they called me up and booked me and 11 other strange guys to do a poorly donechorus line sketch in front of the audience. It was funny and everything, but after 6 hours with out of shape guys in dance bootcamp, we were all hurting really bad. They used a professional dancer who taught choreography to us. We were lambs to the slaughter. That choreographer kicked the crap out of us learning that routine. I had a whole newfound respect for dancers.
At the end of the day filling out our AFTRA contracts, I overheard many of the actors complaining about it, so I thought about this for a bit. When my turn to fill them out came I quietly said to the talent coordinator, “Anytime you get anything strange, weird, or funny, have no problem doing it okay?” “If it makes people laugh I don’t care what you do to me, call me anytime.” He was kind of shocked after all the pissing and moaning he’d just heard from the other actors. I worked on the Tonight Show for 78 episodes after that. They just called me direct. And no agent was ever involved. The writers thought up something crazy, call Shannon, he’ll do it. Those were some of the most fun, satisfying, and happiest career moments of my life.
I got on a few other shows that way also. Any many came from industry people referrals that I worked with. Always remember to be nice to everyone you work with on the set. You never know who is who, and if you are cool to work with, people will suggest you for roles. People like to work with responsible, professional, and easy to work with actors. It sure is nice when the phone just rings, “Are you available to work tomorrow?” But really, it was the commercials that paid the bills and kept us alive. I never got that big film or TV break, but I worked. So, I guess it wasn’t so bad, I ended up being a working actor, and looking back on it, to me that was success.
If you would like, (or can stand more) please consider picking up my acting book. “An Actor’s Face”. It’s priced at five bucks on Kindle or Nook. I wrote it last year, so it’s not too dated. Other than the unions merging, everything is pretty up to date. I hope I can help you to avoid some of the scam artists I fell prey to. I made lots of mistakes I learned tough lessons from. Maybe I can help you avoid a few, and even entertain you along the way with my adventures, misadventures, possibly save you some heartache, and a few bucks.
My book is over 240 pages of practical advice, casting, and auditioning tips for actors who want to book more work. Also for actors who are making the move to New York, or Hollywood, to pursue their dream as an actor wherever you are, as well as for people, young or old, who are thinking about breaking into the acting business.
I wanted to price my book at $10 or more, because I put a lot of time and work into it. I chose to price it low, because I would rather you had the extra money for more important things, like good headshots. There are a lot of "slightly' overpriced acting books out there. My intent is to inform, prepare, educate, and explain the realities.
I hope that one day, you will do the same thing, and help other actors along. I think reading all the books you can by acting teachers, casting directors, actors, and anyone else who has extensive experience on the front lines is a good idea. That's where it really means something. Make yourself as well informed as you possibly can. This is a tough line of work to get into, and even being a starving actor is expensive.
If you choose to purchase my book, thanks in advance, I really do appreciate it. It makes me feel good to know I am getting some good out there in the world. If it helps just one person from making some of the mistakes I did, then it was worth the effort.